Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar this week accused the media of “creating (the) Mahadayi issue”, and declared that “the fight over distribution of the Mahadayi river water is before the Tribunal and we will fight it there”. Parrikar had appeared to take a more political approach last month, writing to Karnataka BJP president B S Yeddyurappa, offering talks on sharing the river’s water for drinking purposes — a letter that triggered outrage in both states. What is the longstanding “Mahadayi issue”? Why has the controversy resurfaced?
The river rises in the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Ghats, in Khanapur taluk of Karnataka’s Belagavi district, and flows in a general westerly direction, entering Goa in the Sattari taluk of North Goa district. It is joined by a number of streams along the way, growing in volume to become the Mandovi, one of Goa’s two major rivers, before emptying itself into the Arabian Sea at Panaji.
About two-thirds (76 km) of the Mahadayi’s (also spelt Mahadeyi or Mhadei, and called Mandovi in Goa) 111-km length is in Goa; the initial 35 km is in Karnataka. As most of Goa’s 11 rivers hold salt water; the sweet-water Mandovi is crucial to the state’s water security, ecology, and as an important source of its staple diet of fish. The larger Mahadayi/Mandovi river basin, with its web of tributaries and distributaries, nourishes, besides Goa, parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka.
The dispute is one of the many over the sharing of river waters across India. It started in the 80s — and tensions between Goa and Karnataka escalated through the early 90s, as Karnataka designed a chain of dams and canals to channel the Mahadayi’s water to the basin of the Malaprabha, a 304-km tributary of the Krishna, citing the endemic water scarcity in the northern districts of Belagavi, Dharwad, Gadag and Bagalkot. In 2002, Goa sought the setting up of a Tribunal to adjudicate the dispute. In 2006, it moved the Supreme Court to press its demand. After attempts at negotiation failed, the Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal was set up on November 16, 2010.
Goa argues for the needs of the population along the river’s natural path, which, it says, was decided by tectonic events. Ingress of saltwater in an otherwise monsoon dependent river will kill the state’s green belt and mangroves, alter the relationship between the population and the land, and disturb its ecological and environmental balance. Karnataka, on the other hand, insists that it needs water for drinking, irrigation and power generation, and “since the water goes wasted into the sea, the Mahadayi’s surplus should be diverted to Malaprabha’s deficit basin”. But Goa says it is water-deficient itself, which has affected its agriculture.
Acting on Goa’s challenge, the Supreme Court has stopped the construction of Karnataka’s canals and dams. In recent years, Karnataka has pegged its demand for Mahadayi water at 7.56 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft) to meet the “drinking requirement” of farmers in North Karnataka. But Goa has raised concerns that Karnataka would stock more water in its reservoirs and channel it to the Malaprabha basin, to be used for irrigation.
While North Karnataka’s water crisis is real, a diversion of the Mahadayi/Mandovi presents a threat to Goa as well. The non saline, tidally insulated basin is home to the extremely fragile, ancient tropical freshwater Myristica swamps, considered to be the most primitive flowering plants on Earth. Draining the swamps could lead to floods and erosion, with catastrophic consequences for the ecology of the Western Ghats, say ecologists.
“If Karnataka does go ahead with eight dams, the majestic Dudhsagar waterfall in Goa will disappear. Once the Ghats go dry, many species, including some critically endangered ones, will die out,” said Rajendra Kerkar, a environmental activist who has been mapping the biodiversity of the Mahadayi basin since 1995. On the health of the Mahadayi also depends that of at least three protected habitats — the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary, Mahadayi Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary.
It has not been lost on anyone that Goa and Maharashtra are BJP-ruled, and that Congress-ruled Karnataka is one of the big political prizes up for grabs over the next few months. In Karnataka, the districts worst hit by the scarcity of water are considered to be strongholds of the BJP, which is keen to be seen as the saviour of farmers.
On December 20, 2017, Yeddyurappa wrote to Parrikar asking for 7.56 tmc ft “for the drinking water needs of drought prone areas of North Karnataka”. Read: about 50 seats in the 225-seat Legislative Assembly.
Parrikar responded the very next day, BJP-to-BJP, even as repeated letters of request from the constitutional chair and his counterpart in Bengaluru, Siddaramaiah, continued to be “scrutinised by the Goa State Irrigation Department”. The letters carried no legal weight, and were widely seen as political posturing. Indeed, Parrikar himself was cautious: qualifying drinking water needs “as human needs”, to be met on humanitarian grounds.
Interestingly, it was the NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee that cleared the Kalasa-Banduri project aimed at diverting 7.56 tmc ft of water from the Mahadayi to the Malaprabha through a canal across the Mahadayi’s tributaries, Kalasa and Banduri. And it was Parrikar as Chief Minister of Goa who sought the setting up of the disputes Tribunal. BSY, meanwhile, is remembered as the man who, as Deputy CM in H D Kumaraswamy’s government, laid the foundation stone of the Kalsa canal in 2006. In Goa, the Opposition Congress, treading a delicate ground, has been largely silent as the current controversy plays out.
Meanwhile, the Tribunal, which has had 100 interim hearings so far, will take up the issue again on February 6, in New Delhi.